Guns, Drugs & Energon: Transformers (2007)

Michael Bay-lieve it or not, they’re still making Transformers movies! This week sees the release of Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth installment of the decade-old blockbuster franchise based on some Hasbro toys. Join Max Robinson and Patrick Stinson this week as they brave the dubious racial caricatures and ever-increasing plot devices, and mighty robots of  The Gobots The Transformers.

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Max: Holy hell it’s been ten years since the original Transformers movie came out! I was in high school when that dropped, they’ve now made five of these movies and it still doesn’t feel that long ago.

Patrick: It does seem absurd that this franchise is a decade old, but on the other hand, as one of the folks who was lured back into hardcore Transformers fandom by Transformers (2007), I definitely do have a vivid sense of each of the subsequent years. It’s been a very long ride, much of it spent wondering when Michael Bay was going to gracefully hop off this wagon. But hey, without him, I wouldn’t have bought a toy to impress my then-girlfriend in 2009 and wound up today with several hundred Transformers and a wife.

Max: Double edged sword, huh?

Patrick: I can make no comment here that is both clever and safe. MOVING RIGHT ALONG, it had been a long, long time since watching the original flick and I was pleasantly surprised by how much just works about it. Sort of like Jurassic Park, while the sequels may be quantitatively more spectacular, the quality of this one shines through. Not sure we will ever call it a classic, but I do think that this joint is unironically…solid.

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Max: I haven’t rewatched this movie in a long while and it’s interesting how, compared to the rest of the franchise, (Executive Producer) Spielberg is all over this. The Sam and Bumblebee portions that make up the first act or so lean heavy on E.T. and there’s even a bit of Duel in the seemingly unknowable, sentient cars that pursue Sam.

Patrick: I would call it an early example of the Amblin-nostalgia that gave us Super 8, Stranger Things, and a few other recent projects. I haven’t seen Duel but I have a laser-sharp memory of seeing Barricade (the police Decepticon) accost Sam in the theater. I was scared and disturbed by a car. That’s an absolute triumph of what the brand of Transformers—robot warriors hiding in plain sight—should be about, but could NEVER be accomplished in the prior medium of animation.

Other things that work: the mysterious violent attack in the opening; the tiny Decepticon Frenzy infiltrating Air Force One; and the surrogate father figure of Optimus Prime returning in triumph to the screen. At the time, remember, there was no guarantee that Peter Cullen would be returning to a role that he had last portrayed twenty years prior. His casting, and the ethos behind it, is why despite its radical changes this movie is truly The Transformers and not a name-only reboot like Godzilla (1998).

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Max: I feel like Shia LeBeouf, weirdly enough, is a big part of why the non-CG portions of the movie work. He may be an albatross around the neck of the Indiana Jones movies but he gives a kind of necessary frantic energy to Sam that feels appropriate for a movie about giant robots killing each other with their bare hands and a revisionist history plot that sounds like something out of InfoWars. And, man, poor Megan Fox. Sam and Mikaela don’t have a ton of chemistry as characters but Fox does what she can with the unenviable role of “paper-thin love interest for an annoying nerd”.

Patrick: Shia remains a great choice, reminding me of some of my favorite improv performances. I think he is harnessing the kind of inherent absurdity of getting blown up in front of green screens all day to reach this sort of Epicly Done With This Shit Nirvana. Mikaela is an okay character played by an inexperienced-at-the-time actor who really is done poorly by inexplicably ending up with Sam at the end of the movie only to be treated like crap by subsequent movies. Still, she does briefly light up the screen when she’s chewing Sam out for his coddled life, or helping Bumblebee waste a giant Decepticon.

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Max: The bit where she’s driving around with Bumblebee firing on Decepticons is the kind of clever setpiece we don’t get enough of in the other films. A weird thing about this movie is it has like 30 characters, most of them don’t add anything and a bunch of them are either broad racist caricatures or character actors collecting a paycheck after one scene of intense schtick. I don’t know that the snooty history teacher or the faux-Serpico cop needed whole arcs but why even put Bernie Mac in your movie if he’s just going to disappear forever after five minutes? Michael Bay throwing a (christ) “mammy” reference in a fucking modern film aside, Bobby Bolivia was stellar.

Patrick: Something is lost by Bay’s approach to work, which emphasizes the industrial side of things rather than the artistic side. On the one hand, he’s great to his below-the-line guys, and actors seem to really enjoy hanging out with him for a week to do schtick. On the other hand, having 95% of the characters in the film series be disposable leads to the films themselves feeling disposable. This hits the robots particularly hard because every frame that they show up in is expensive. So the alien robots, the reason to show up in the theater, get between 0 and 5 lines each and a few seconds of looking cool before they are ground up like the victims of Robot Jason Voorhees. Even among the theoretical core audience of young male Transformers fans, this has led to indifference and an “enough already” attitude.

Max: As much as so much (so, so so much) of this movie has either dated poorly or was kind of gross to begin with, it’s not hard to see why we have so many sequels and imitators. Framing the movie around Sam, Mikaela and Bumblebee gives the movie a decent likeable core cast (even if the movie spins its wheels on a hacker subplot with named characters who never show up in another Transformers flick). I really dig how the movie plays coy with Transformers changing forms early on, with Bumblebee and Barricade having so much *presence* because they aren’t robots right off the bat. That’s definitely an element missing from Bay’s later robo-mayhem movies, although Age of Extinction gives us a version of that with Optimus several movies later. Patrick, the movie Autobots and Decepticons are a big departure from what we’d previously seen in the toys, cartoons and comics. Your thoughts?

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Patrick: Well, the design work in this movie is really unique. Traditionally, the Transformers were a rearrangement of relatively few geometric shapes. The toys are like little puzzles, with classic “anime robot” faces. In order to bring them into live action, the VFX team eschewed liquid-metal morphing (seen it) and resolved that there had to be a break or a joint between every solid piece that was seen to move. The results are breathtaking and a big part of the films’ appeal, though many diehards hate it. Alien organisms explode out of seamless vehicle forms, and snap back in seconds. There is a marvelous imagination in scenes such as Starscream taking on a squadron of fighters while sliding gracefully between forms. Transformers is probably the most dramatic single technical advance in computer VFX since the early ‘90s.

Max: I’m very hit or miss on many of the movie designs but there’s a very impressive level of thought that goes into them, from Barricade’s pithy “To Punish and Enslave” on the side of his evil cop car mode to the fact that Ironhide’s robot face is meant to resemble a bull. Bay knows that he needs to make these guys look cool and we get a number of excellent fight scenes (although, admittedly, Bay’s love of hyper-edits muddles the visuals). I was particularly struck by how Bonecrusher’s military bomb disposal vehicle mode gives way to ROLLER BLADE FEET when he and Optimus fight to the death on that freeway.

Patrick: While this movie largely holds together, a lot of the problems in the sequels come from trying to replicate or exaggerate elements without understanding why they worked in the first place. For example, the approach to humor. There’s a great extended slapstick sequence in this movie with the Autobots and Sam’s parents that culminates in a totally-out-of-left-field masturbation joke. To me, it lands great and largely because you wouldn’t expect it in a PG-13 Transformers film…sort of an acknowledgement that the original audience has grown up. But this morphs into a “MORE DIRTY HUMOR” mandate in the sequels that gives us Dick Lasers, Robot Wrecking Testes, robots humping and farting and spitting, an interminable discussion of Romeo and Juliet laws…a twisting of one good thing into a weary death knell for taste.

Max: I can imagine, in my mind’s eye, the meeting with the special effects guys where Bay waxed poetic about Bumblebee metaphorically pissing on celebrated character actor John Turturro. The movie veers wildly between cute bits like Bumblebee doing driverless doughnuts to Sam’s visible horror and, I dunno, Jazz the racially problematic Autobot getting torn in half with zero fanfare. The wide gulf between dumb gags and robo-murder definitely gets worse with successive films.

Patrick: It’s almost hard for me to sum up what impact both this movie and its sequels ultimately had on my life. This is not entirely through their merits, but a sort of understanding that post-adolescence it was okay to enjoy childish and silly things and that I wasn’t alone for doing so. Given the ridiculous amount of money made by this franchise, I think it speaks to more people than will care to admit it. That said, it’s an embarrassment that in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the 2007 Transformers has yet to be surpassed in any artistic, creative way by the sequels helmed by the same director with even more ungodly amounts of money to spend…because it ain’t exactly Star Wars in the first place. Speaking of embarrassments, Max and I will see you next as we look at Revenge of the Fallen, which is the cinematic equivalent of the sinking feeling you get when you are about to drop something heavy on your toe and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Next: Revenge of The Fallen and the agony and ecstasy of the Constructicons. 

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